The Typical Problems of Husbands & Wives


Genesis 3:1-19

We have discussed at length the Bible’s theology of marriage and began, Last Lord’s Day evening, to consider its ethics of marriage. How are husbands and wives to live in the married state? We began with Ephesians 5 and Paul’s famous assertion of a distinction between husbands and wives and talked about how men are to be Christian men in their marriage, and women Christian women. God has made men and women to be different and it is in the sanctification of each sex that any marriage approaches its ideal.

But the differences between men and women not only provide them their great opportunity to make their own distinctive contribution to their marriage, to add their essential half to what a marriage ought to be; those sexual differences, the difference between manhood and womanhood also prove distinct temptations. Marriage goes wrong in predictable, typical ways because men are male sinners and women are female sinners. To demonstrate this we return to the opening chapters of the Bible, where so much of the Bible’s perspective on married life is to be found.

Text:  Genesis 3:1-19

This is one of the most important texts in the Bible. Calvin, I remember, says somewhere that any Christian ought to be often in Genesis 3, John 3 and Romans 3. We can hardly do justice to all that is here. I’m going to comment only on the material that bears on the question we are dealing with this evening: namely how the fall had different effects on men and women. Or, perhaps better, how the divinely ordered natures of men and women predispose them to sin in somewhat different ways.

v.1       The serpent is obviously the tool of some dark power. Serpents can’t speak. The narrator confines himself to the outward appearance of things and does not lift the veil to reveal the reality behind. [Collins, Genesis 1-4, 171]The craftiness of the serpent led him to address his temptation to the woman. This is not explained, but it is a significant fact that cries out for some explanation. Why didn’t he target Adam, so far the primary human character in the narrative? The Apostle Paul, famously and now controversially, draws attention to this fact in 1 Timothy 2, so we cannot think it doesn’t matter. He draws attention to the fact that the woman was deceived at least in some respects in a way the man was not. Something is at work in the Devil’s decision to approach Eve rather than Adam.

The serpent begins with a distortion. He is, as the Lord reminds us, a liar from the beginning and a clever liar. They had been commanded to refrain from eating the fruit of but one tree in the garden. By the way, it is certainly interesting and important that the serpent who does the tempting here is explicitly said to be a creature that “the Lord God had made.”

v.3       The woman corrects the serpent, but not entirely accurately. She leaves out the “every” in the Lord’s instruction in 2:15. They were in fact free to eat the fruit of every tree in the garden but one. She also adds that they aren’t even allowed to touch the tree that is in the midst of the garden. But the Lord hadn’t forbidden them to touch the tree, only to eat its fruit. We already detect in Eve a sense that they had been hard done by.

v.5       The serpent’s shrewdness is revealed in the fact that what he tells the woman are half-truths. Only later will it become clear that the knowledge that they gain by their disobedience will be their curse and the curse of the world.

v.6       We will return in a few moments to this very important piece of intelligence: Adam was with her the entire time.

v.8       They knew good and evil alright; but they knew it in the form of shame. This is a contrast to 2:25. Their innocence has been shattered. And now, for the first time, God is a threat to them. Their personal serenity has been overwhelmed by the awareness of their guilt.

v.9       Again, an important detail. The Lord calls to the man, not to the woman. The serpent talked first to the woman. God talks first to the man. He wants an explanation of what has happened and asks the man for it. The question is obviously rhetorical.

v.12     We have so much of fallen human life compressed in Adam’s reply: 1) the alienation between human beings as Adam throws Eve under the bus; 2) the excuse-making, as Adam blames another for what he has done; and 3) the blaming of God, which is, in effect, what Adam does here. “You gave me this woman and look at all the trouble she has caused me.”

v.13     The woman also passes the buck.

Now, let’s stop at this point and summarize what we have learned. The serpent approached the woman because, shrewd as he was, he realized that she was susceptible to his temptation in a way the man was not. The woman succumbed to the temptation, swallowing the devil’s falsehoods hook, line, and sinker. But her husband was with her the whole time, listening in but doing nothing; having no part of the conversation. It was he who had been given the commands concerning the trees in the garden, indeed before the woman had been created. He had obviously communicated those commands to her as he should have done. But here he sat while his wife eagerly listened to a creature, and a particularly slimy one at that, cast doubt on what God had said. And, then, when offered, he took the fruit that his wife had plucked from the tree and ate it. It is interesting and significant, once again, that it is only after Adam ate that their eyes were opened and they realized their shame. Adam was the responsible party and he was galactically irresponsible. This is further confirmed when the Lord approaches Adam and demands that he tell him what has happened.

Now, we continue with the text. Read 3:14-19.

v.15      The first declaration of the Gospel of Jesus Christ in the Bible.

v.17     This is the first use of Adam, the Hebrew word for “man,” as a proper noun, as a name, Adam.

Now we know that the history of Genesis 2 and 3 is not ordinary history, but supra-history or meta-history.  I don’t mean, of course, that the events did not happen as they are reported here; of course, they did.  It is real history.  What I mean by “meta-history” is that this history is representative or archetypical. It reveals a pattern for human life. When God gave Adam his wife that was archetypical of every marriage, as the narrator, in that case, makes explicit in 2:24. Every subsequent marriage will be like this first marriage. What is true of Adam and Eve is true of every husband and wife. Jesus said as much himself in Matthew 19.  After citing 2:24, the Lord says of all marriages, “Whom God has joined together let not man separate.…” Similarly, the Devil tempts people now in the same way he tempted Eve. The world lives as it does because it has believed the Devil’s assurances that they surely will not die. If the world did not think that, it would live very differently. And similarly, when God cursed the woman, we all understand that Eve is every woman and the shape of her curse applies to women in general, as the curse pronounced against Adam applies to men in general.

But it is a fascinating and highly important observation that God does not curse the man and woman in the same way or in the same terms.  Think about it. The consequences of man’s fall and of God’s curse upon mankind on account of Adam’s sin have ever since fallen on the one sex as on the other. Certainly this is true of the most terrible and weighty aspects of the curse: estrangement from God, the liability of punishment for our sins, the prospect of death, and the general degradation of life – frustration, illness, etc. All of that is suffered by men and women alike and no more by the one sex than by the other. Indeed, the curse of the man is not only the curse of the male, but of mankind as a whole – he being the representative human being — as is clearly indicated by the fact that it is to him that the promise of death and returning to dust is made, a fate that obviously equally awaits the woman.

All of that notwithstanding, God does not address the man and woman together, as we might have expected him to do. Rather, he says very different things to each.  Obviously he is not denying that the man suffers in many of the same ways as will the woman and vice versa.  But, obviously, there is something specific being said about the distinctive ways in which men and women experience the fall and live lives in sin.

The Curse of the Woman: 3:16

It is to be noted, in the first place, that the curses on the man and woman take the form of disruptions of their appointed roles. In 2:15 we read that the man was placed in the garden of Eden in order to work the garden, to cultivate it, to be a farmer. In vv. 17-19, the curse addresses that very calling, a calling that will become frustrating, difficult, and unpleasant in many ways.

In the woman’s case, the roles of her life that are highlighted in the creation account are that of man’s partner, his helper, his companion, and the mother of children. God tells her, in the first half of v. 16 that her maternity will be now accompanied with suffering. And we could spend a long time elaborating the meaning of that: 1) the pain of childbirth itself, 2) the death of mothers giving birth – still multitudes today but in former days vast multitudes of women –, 3) the death of children once born, and 4) the pain a mother suffers as she bears in her heart the trials, the sorrows, and the tribulations of her children.

The second half of the verse concerns the woman’s relationship with her husband, which we saw celebrated in 2:23-24 as a romantic affection leading to the deepest conceivable attachment, bone of bone and flesh of flesh, (“one flesh”) producing the true wholeness of human life (“it was good”).

But, exactly what is meant by “Your desire shall be for your husband and he shall rule over you”? There are broadly two possibilities.  First, it could mean that the man will now exercise his headship over the woman in a harsh and exploitive way.  “To love and to cherish,” which the husband promises at the wedding, becomes too often “to desire and to dominate.” [Kidner, 71]  Women, on the other hand, often allow themselves to be exploited in this way because of their desire for their husband. The wife’s desire for her husband’s love, for her own security, for her sexual needs, leads her to submit to unreasonable and harsh treatment from her husband. The word translated “desire” [תשׁוּקה] appears but twice otherwise in the Hebrew Bible.  One use is in Song of Songs 7:10 (She says, “I belong to my lover and his desire [or “longing”] is for me.”)  Taking desire that way, it makes this interpretation possible. She longs for her husband and so allows him to treat her badly. It is not however, I think, a very likely interpretation.

A second interpretation builds on the only other use of this Hebrew word, which happens to occur in the very next chapter and in the very same sort of phrase. In Gen. 4:7 God says to Cain, downcast because of God’s preference for Abel’s offering, “…sin is crouching at your door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.” The equivalence of idiom is a powerful argument for taking the two phrases in a similar way. The woman’s desire is for her husband. Sin’s desire is for Cain. But “its desire is for you” in 4:7 clearly refers to sin’s desire to control, to dominate Cain, to have its way with Cain.

In 3:16b, then, the woman’s desire for her husband would be her desire to control, to get her way in a situation where she remains, by nature the second sex and subject to her husband. Her desire for her husband is not, then, her craving for her man no matter what he demands, but a desire for independence, even for dominance, the getting of her own way, a particular temptation, even passion for a person who is naturally in a position of subordination. In other words, this order that God established between the woman and her husband, which was to be for the blessing and fulfillment of both, will now begin to chafe. She will want things to go her way, but she will not have to power to make it so. In other words, the battle of the sexes here begins and, as well, the principal frustrations of the woman’s life, those frustrations that touch her most deeply, those that pertain to the two great centers of her life and interest: her children and her husband. It is a powerful, almost insurmountable argument for this view of 16b that, in that case, the curse would amount to a corruption, a reversal of what has already been revealed as normative for the life of men and women in the creation account itself. We find male headship in Genesis 2; we find the woman chafing under it in Genesis 3.

Another argument for this interpretation is that in the parallelism of the poetry in 3:16b, “desire” is matched with “rule over.” [Waltke, Genesis, 94] She wants to rule, but he will rule. The word, a single letter in Hebrew, that is translated “but” in 4:7 (“but [Cain] you must rule over it”) is the same word that is translated “and” in 3:16b (“and he shall rule over you.”) Our finest commentary on Genesis recommends translating the phrase: “but he shall rule over you.” The thought is clearly adversative. She wants something but she’s not going to get it. In other words, the woman is going to live in frustration because she will want a measure of control that her nature will simply never bestow on her. Modern feminism is described to a “T” in Genesis 3:16b: both the anger and the frustration on the one hand, and the failure on the other.

3:17-19

Now we turn to the man. The man is addressed in regard to his toil, the responsibility as a worker that God gave him at the outset (as we read in Genesis 2:15). Take note of how the curse begins:  “Because you obeyed your wife…” That is, instead of obeying the Lord you listened to your wife.  Instead of ruling your home in obedience to God, you obeyed your wife in disobedience to him. Milton, in Paradise Lost, if you remember, explains the fall as the result of the man falling prey to feminine wiles.

            She gave him of that fair enticing fruit

with liberal hand; he scrupl’d not to eat,

against his better knowledge, not deceiv’d,

but fondly overcome with female charm.   [IX]

Well, the Bible doesn’t say that, though Paul does make a point of saying that it was the woman, not the man who was deceived. But there is, very clearly, in the narrative the implication that the man laid down the responsibilities that were very clearly and directly his. We already drew attention to the fact that Adam was present with Eve through the temptation, and allowed his wife to exercise leadership in a matter the Lord had explicitly entrusted to him. The man had responsibilities to protect and to direct his wife and he failed to fulfill them. He laid them down; she took the initiative, and in the most literal sense, all hell broke loose! This view of the matter is confirmed in 3:12 where, clearly, the narrator wants his readers to be appalled at the man’s shifting of blame from himself, particularly when he is shifting it on to his wife.  The responsible party won’t take responsibility for what was done on his watch – indeed, for what was done right before his eyes.

Now, once again, the emphasis seems to fall on man’s responsibilities and the difficulties that he is now going to face in fulfilling them. That’s his curse.  Work itself, toil, is not the curse; for man was given work to do at the outset, before the entrance of sin. We will be workers, hard workers, satisfied workers in heaven. We were made to work as God works. Rather it is the hardship and frustration of work that sin has introduced. The woman’s punishment struck at the deepest root of her being as a woman – as a mother and a wife –; the man’s strikes at the innermost nerve of his life, his work and his provision for himself and his family.

What sin is going to do, in other words, is reverse and upend the goodness of life as God made it and in ways peculiar to men and women. Men were made to work and to rule and now they become shifty and irresponsible, the difficulty of the task makes them unwilling to undertake it and complete it.  Women are now going to want another arrangement for life. Depending upon and helping their husbands, in a fallen world, is going to seem to them a hard lot as will being a mother. They cannot escape these lots in life, for God had made nature with a certain inflexibility, but they can resent their lot and try to escape it. As I said, feminism is simply one more, large-scale effort of women whose desire is for their husbands.

There is so much more here we haven’t time to mention. But it is time for us now to apply this history, this meta-history to the human and the Christian experience of marriage. I think we may say, on the strength of this material, the teaching of the rest of the Bible, and then the observation of human life, that you find a nearly universal human experience written and explained here in Gen. 3:16-19. The quintessentially feminine sin is discontent, especially discontent with her relationships (all relationships, for children and husband are but the most fundamental of a woman’s relationships). The quintessentially masculine sin – and all the more in regard to his wife and children – is irresponsibility; the laying down the responsibilities God placed squarely on his shoulders.

Now hear me carefully. I’m hardly saying that men are never discontented and women never irresponsible. Obviously they are and profoundly so. We all break all of God’s commandments all the time. But that is not the same thing as saying that there is not a more specifically feminine form of fallenness and a more specifically masculine form. There surely are such differences and our attention is drawn to them by the remarkable fact that God punished men and women differently when he cursed mankind because of Adam’s sin. There is a unity of the sexes in sin, as there is in life, and there is a distinctiveness or uniqueness as well.

Illustrations of this differentiation in sin may be found literally wherever you look.

  1. They certainly may be found in the Bible. Think of unhappy Hannah and her irresponsible husband Elkanah. We considered last week Eph. 5:22-33. And what did we find there. In effect we found men being ordered to exercise their headship in a responsible, that is to say, a truly Christian way. Women were ordered to be submissive and respect their husbands. Gen. 3:16 lies behind that entire treatment. Women are unhappy in their marriages, they are tempted to resent their husbands and to complain about them or to them, the very opposite of respect. Paul says they are to respect their husbands. And one of the primary reasons they are tempted not to respect their husbands is because their husbands are in so many ways irresponsible, and particularly irresponsible in their relationships. They are not to their wives what they ought to be. A man’s irresponsibility in a marriage and a woman’s discontentment is a toxic brew! So the apostle addresses each sex in precisely that way that would seem typically necessary after reading Gen. 3:16ff. It is interesting and important what Paul does not say there. He doesn’t command women to love their husbands. That is not usually, or, at any rate, not first the problem. Women have a breathtaking capacity to love their men, even when those men are undeserving of their love. Do you remember the report not so long ago of the Scandinavian woman who divorced her husband? Why would that be news? Well, they had been married 43 years but he had left her never to return in the seventh year of her marriage. She had waited for 36 years before pulling the plug! That’s a woman for you! In the same way he didn’t tell husbands to rule or to control their wives. What he tells them is to love their wives, which is the same thing as saying “be responsible” in your marriage; fulfill your headship responsibly, lovingly, sacrificially, as Jesus fulfilled his. A woman whose husband loves her as Christ loved the church will have much less difficulty respecting her husband!
  2. But you also find illustrations of this reality everywhere you look in human society. Take my neighborhood, Tacoma’s Hilltop, or as we Hilltoppers now say, “Upper Tacoma.” What you find in a community like that you find everywhere else, but you find human life and human experience painted in brighter colors, with bolder strokes. And what do you find? You find irresponsible men and unhappy and discontented women. Who keeps kith and kin together in the Hilltop? It isn’t the men; it’s the women. As you would expect, it is the women who make sure the children are fed, the kids are clothed, that they get off to school. And where are the men? They are standing in a group on the street corner at 2:30 in the morning making a lot noise, paying no attention to the neighborhood around them trying to sleep. Now you might suppose that those fellows are deeply unhappy about their lot, grieving that their lives are not going anywhere. But, by and large I find, they are not. They might wish for something else, but, all in all, they are reasonably content with their lives. They have food, television, and women. For many of them that seems to be enough. It is the women who are unhappy, who want more than they are getting. And they are particularly unhappy with their men. I’ve never heard so many unhappy women in my life as you hear through the open window in Hilltop.
  3. These are realities so commonplace that our language unwittingly reflects them. “Bitch” is a feminine term, whether used as a noun or a verb. It refers to complaining, the expression of unhappiness, discontent. Similarly, when the term “deadbeat” is heard, it is virtually always in reference to a man, as in the phrase “deadbeat dads.” Similarly, no one thinks of a woman when the term “Couch potato” is used.
  4. You see it already in the behavior of teenage boys and girls. The girls despair and the boys betray their responsibilities. How does a teenage fellow let a girl he has dated know that he’s no longer interested? He stops calling. Already he is making a habit of failing to protect and care for a woman, of taking responsibility for a relationship. He cares more for himself than for faithfulness to his calling as a man. This is why he also takes care to ensure that the girl will say yes before he ever asks her out. He doesn’t want to expose himself to the rejection. But he doesn’t mind at all, never really even thinks about putting a girl in the unenviable position of having to decline an invitation she really has no interest in accepting!
  5. My own experience in the ministry also confirms all of this reality. Almost all the time, when a marriage is brought to me — this is scores of times over 36 years — virtually every single time it is the wife who brings it to me. Not the husband. She is the one who can’t stand the condition of her marriage, who is agitating at home against her husband, who wants things to be different so much that she can’t stop complaining, and, to be sure, praying. Her husband, to tell the truth, may wish for more in his marriage, may know at some level that it is not what it ought to be, may even be quite disappointed about it; he may find his eye wandering, but he has his work, his hobbies, his TV football, his buddies. He fits the facts of his marriage into the larger narrative of his life and goes on reasonably content. At least he’s not wide awake at 2:00 in the morning thinking about his relationship with his wife. Or at least he’s not so miserable that he feels the need to call his pastor. And why is the wife so miserable? Well very often it is because the husband, on whom she so much depends has laid down his responsibilities for her, for her heart, and for her happiness.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I know there are exceptions to this. I have dealt with them myself. But, as a generality this is so true, so universally true, not only in Christian life but in human life, that it is the general assumption of our culture. The man pays far too little attention to his responsibilities for his wife and his children and the woman grieves for the attention that she does not get, the love that is not given to her, the affection and celebration and appreciation of her husband that should be any married woman’s crown and reward and, without which, other things don’t count nearly as much as they might. And so we hear the umpteenth joke about the disinterested, the silent man who cares more for lots of things than for cultivating the needs of his wife or even thinking about their relationship; and the woman who talks endlessly about what’s wrong with her relationships. Dave Barry makes a living writing about this. If you don’t think so, google “Dave Barry: the difference between men and women” and read what is a screamingly funny send-up of precisely what I am talking about this evening.” In life, of course, it is very often not so funny. I wonder, myself, what the first Mrs. Barry thought of that column!

Now, what is the importance of all of this? Just this: In marriage certain things ought to be done. We will have more to say about that, but we have already spoken of how a husband ought to love his wife with a Christ-like love and how the wife ought to respect her husband. However, in marriage, because we live in a fallen world and because we are sinners, certain things tend to happen instead — sin makes them inevitable – things that are destructive to love, happiness, and all that God made marriage to be in the life of mankind. Just as we must commit ourselves to doing what ought to be done as husbands and wives, so we must prepare ourselves to resist the chronic tendencies of men and women to undermine a marriage – a man by his irresponsibility and a woman by her discontent. To be forewarned is to be forearmed.

You see, the purpose of grace in married life is precisely to restore a man to be the responsible lover of his wife, protector and provider for her heart and life that he was made to be, but which his sin now disinclines him to be. You men, if you are honest with yourselves, will admit this. There is a tendency that rises up unbidden within you to lay down the responsibilities God has given you for your wife (and your children!). There are times, even Christian man that you are, that you will admit that you resent your responsibilities! Why do I have to be the one who apologizes first? Why am I the one who has to keep everyone happy? Why does it seem that she always thinks that there is something that I am supposed to be doing that I’m not? That is what sin does to a man and makes of a man. I say again as I did last Lord’s Day evening, the really terrifying consequence of modern feminism is what it is doing to men: it is consoling them and confirming them in a life of irresponsibility, to which they are already inclined.

But men, that is what God made you: a man. He gave you the wider shoulders precisely because he expects you to carry the greater weight. And when you resent your responsibilities – and I worry if you don’t resent them to some degree; I fear it must be because you hardly even realize how many responsibilities you have and so feel nothing of the guilt, the uneasy conscience you ought to have and will have if you ever seriously consider what it must mean to love a woman as Christ loved the church and gave himself for her – I say, when you think resentfully about your responsibilities, remember you are a man and God made you a man and he expects you to behave like one.

And the purpose of grace in married life is to restore a woman to a cheerful acceptance of her role in life as the second sex. In many cases that will mean refusing to complain when your husband is not all that he ought to be and showing respect even when it is not especially due (a requirement in all relationships of authority and submission). Like it or not, as the man represents all human beings in certain respects and especially in respect to the virtuous use of authority, so fundamental to human life in all its flaws, so the woman represents us all in the virtue of humble submission, again equally fundamental to human life and its flourishing. It is no small thing that God requires of either sex!

As Ronald Knox, the perceptive Roman Catholic writer, put it in speaking to the couple, the woman as well as the man:

“Oh, you want to get married, do you? That means, you want to imitate the action of Jesus Christ in his incarnation [remember not just Christ’s self-giving but his submission to his Father’s will]. Well, God bless you; you will want all the grace I can rout out for you if you are to do that; a whole trousseau of graces.” [Cited in W. K. Kilpatrick, Psychological Seduction, 210-211]

Genesis 3 opens a window on human life as we observe it and on male -female relationships as we observe them, particularly in marriage. We can very easily see how irresponsible men and unhappy, discontented women bring out the worst in one another. But, don’t you also see how obviously the solution is found in the embrace by each sex of its God-given calling and nature. Let a man be responsible, take up his responsibilities gladly willingly, honorably as a Christian and seek to love and care for his wife as Christ for the church, and the reasons for feminine discontentment, literally, melt away. The one is the solution to the other. Grace reverses the curse. But never the other way round. You can’t practice the curse in hopes of securing grace! A woman who complains in hopes of pushing her husband into responsible behavior will 99 times out of 100 make matters worse. She will fix her husband in his irresponsibility rather than inspire him to something better. And similarly a husband who retires from his wife and his marriage because he is put off by his wife’s complaints, will not, thereby, fix his marriage. Only the taking up of his responsibility will do that, only loving his wife as Christ loved the church will do that.

We learned from Genesis 2 that marriage is to be an affair of the heart; that husbands are to stick to their wives, that their marriage is to be characterized by passion and by permanence as two lives become one. Marriage is to be a union of love and pleasure. And now we have learned where in a marriage husbands and wives are likely to go wrong; and why they will not go wrong in precisely the same way.

How realistic the Bible is; and how helpful! It always puts its finger on the pulse of life. Look, brothers and sisters, we are living in the middle of a love story, the story of Christ’s love for his church. And that love story has its ups and downs, doesn’t it. We are the bride — all of us together are the Lord’s bride — and we often are unhappy about how things are turning out in our courtship, how the plans are unfolding for our wedding. It is ours to respect, even to revere the Lord at all times and in every way. Obviously he is doing right by us. But, in this love story we also imitate Christ our bridegroom. And from him we learn that a husband’s calling is to take up his God-given responsibilities and discharge them faithfully, perseveringly, and willingly. In the one love story are found the lessons for the other.